Tom Bowles
Tuesday April 28th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Kurt Busch
Last Week: 4
Kurt Busch
You want to know how crazy restrictor plate racing can be at Talladega? No one in last week's Power Rankings for SI finished the race in the top 5. Kurt Busch led the best of the rest, coming home sixth with a car that featured no rear bumper by race's end. Involved in not one but two major accidents, Busch made a spectacular save on the frontstretch when his car spun on lap 62. That kept his car in (mostly) one piece. "I circled this one on the calendar to just try and survive," Busch said -- a common theme at a track that makes innocent victims out of surefire contenders. "I'm glad that we did that." As a reward for his success, he grabbed the points lead for the first time since joining Penske Racing in 2006.
2Tony Stewart
Last Week: 1
Tony Stewart
As the final 100 miles at Talladega unfolded, Stewart looked to have put himself in perfect position to capitalize on others' misfortunes. Spending most of the race running in the back of the pack, the driver of the No. 14 Old Spice Chevrolet was smart enough to wait until the wrecks cleared in front of him before moving forward. Not cracking the top 10 until lap 136, Stewart spent the final 50 laps positioning himself to make that final push to the front. But when he put the pedal to the floor on the race's final restart, nothing happened. With just 10 miles left, his engine went sour, relegating Stewart to his worst finish (23rd) since Las Vegas in March. "A bittersweet day," he said afterwards. Look for him to get another chance at Richmond though; it's the track where Stewart scored his first career Cup win, in 1999.
3Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 2
Jeff Gordon
After seven-straight top 15s culminated in a win at Texas, NASCAR's four-time champ appeared to be turning his Drive For Five into a runaway. But back-to-back bad luck finishes have allowed the rest of the pack to reel him in. Last week it took just eight laps before contact with Matt Kenseth sent Gordon spinning around in the first of what would be two big wrecks at the restrictor plate track. Some blame Kenseth for bumping Gordon, while others think both men were too aggressive early on. "I didn't see anything out of line," said Gordon in his defense. "I don't think that wreck was caused by over-aggressive driving. I mean, every race and every wreck I look to see what I could have done different. Looking back on it, I wish I would have just stayed behind Matt." Half the field would agree: nearly 20 cars received damage in the wreck, before even 25 of the 500 miles were complete.
4Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 3
Jimmie Johnson
Once Gordon wrecked early, the points lead was Johnson's to lose. But the three-time champ's uncanny ability to dodge plate wrecks finally evaporated. When Juan Pablo Montoya got turned by Denny Hamlin on the backstretch, the No. 48 car found itself an innocent victim with fewer than 10 laps remaining. "Man, it sucks racing here," Johnson said afterwards. "It's just disappointing how many hours go into these cars and then we come out here and tear them up like we do. As long as we run restrictor plates, they're going to have these big packs and these big wrecks. There's no way to get around it." The DNF dropped Johnson to third in points and ended a run of four straight top-5 finishes.
5Kyle Busch
Last Week: 7
Kyle Busch
Considering what his fellow title contenders experienced, Busch got off lucky Sunday. Sure, his 25th-place finish could have been much better considering he paced the field at 'Dega for a race-high 42 laps. But after getting spun out following an ill-timed block on Jeff Burton, things could have been a whole lot worse. Busch made one of his all-time great saves, spinning unscathed through the inside of turn 3 while the entire field rolled past without hitting him. And although the incident trapped him a lap behind the leaders with 15 laps remaining, Busch was rewarded by being able to bring his car home in one piece. He even used the final few laps to help a friend, pushing Scott Speed to his best-ever finish in the Cup Series (fifth).
6Ryan Newman
Last Week: NR
Ryan Newman
Talk about having a birds-eye view of one of the scariest incidents in NASCAR history. One minute, Ryan Newman was battling Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for third place; the next, he was simply trying to see out his windshield as a 3,400-lb Sprint Cup race car landed right on his hood. "When I saw Carl [Edwards] flying up in front of me, I thought he was actually going to spin down to the bottom," Newman explained. "[But] the back of the car caught air." The incident would have caused most drivers to lose their concentration; but Newman never wavered from his desire to see the checkered flag. "The bottom line was, I kept my foot in it, knew I was going to bounce off the wall and still finished third." And while Newman was critical of the Car of Tomorrow for causing Edwards' flip, he can't argue with the reward of a top-5 finish at 'Dega: he now sits just 30 points out of a spot in the Chase.
7Jeff Burton
Last Week: NR
Jeff Burton
It's nearly impossible to get yourself a lap back in a restrictor plate race, let alone three. But after an alternator problem trapped Burton three laps back, the No. 31 found itself gifted with NASCAR's Lucky Dog not once, but twice, and roared back in contention. The rule -- which gives the first driver a lap or more down the chance to get it back under each caution flag -- benefited Burton in a race where no one else was getting lapped unless they were sitting in the garage due to a wreck. Earning his final lap back the hard way -- staying in front of the leaders before a caution on lap 148 -- Burton charged to a surprising top-10 finish that leaves him ninth in Sprint Cup points. And with seven-straight runs of 15th or better, his team looks to be finally getting itself back in shape after a rough start.
8Greg Biffle
Last Week: NR
Greg Biffle
How ironic is it that Biffle got his first Talladega top 10 in his 13th career start at the track? Looks like it takes two curses to make a right at a place that's eaten Biffle alive in recent years. "This feels like a victory," he said afterwards. "A seventh-place finish, we did what we planned. There isn't a scratch on that thing other than other people's metal flying through the air." With three top 10s in his last three races, The Biff is also scratching and clawing his way back into the Chase: he's in the top 10 in points for the first time since Atlanta in March.
9Denny Hamlin
Last Week: 6
Denny Hamlin
All guts but no glory Sunday, Hamlin's was often the car pushing other drivers to the front of the pack using Talladega's new, two-car superdrafts. But when push came to shove, it was Hamlin who got shoved out of the draft by Ryan Newman as soon as he got the No. 39 car the lead on Lap 178. Dropping like a rock with the laps winding down, Hamlin's desperate attempt to get back in line on the backstretch resulted in the race's second big wreck just a few laps later. "Once we got to the lead, we got out there so far that the 17 (Matt Kenseth) had a big run and went down there and passed us," he said. "We just got hung out at the wrong time." Too bad everybody else had to suffer along with him.
10Mark Martin
Last Week: 5
Mark Martin
The Charlie Brown of the Sprint Cup circuit, it's only appropriate Martin followed up a win at Phoenix with a last place finish the following week. Once the victor, he's often the victim at plate tracks nowadays, and Sunday was no exception -- Martin was just minding his own business before getting pummeled by a handful of spinning cars during Talladega's first "Big One" on Lap 8. That's usually led him to criticize this style of racing, but at this point he sounds like a man resigned to a fate all 43 drivers have to face for the foreseeable future. "I'd forgot how cool racing at Daytona was because handling really does separate the cars more than it does [at Talladega]," he said. "Here, having a great car doesn't do you any good because you can't separate yourself from the other cars." That left Martin at the wrong place at the wrong time -- like so many others playing this wacky game of NASCAR plate racing roulette.

Dropped Out: Carl Edwards (8), Clint Bowyer (9), David Reutimann (10).

Underdog of the Week How about that Brad Keselowski? You can't say enough about the brilliant strategy he used to win the race in only his fifth career Sprint Cup start. But the win is even more impressive when you consider the team he drove for. Team owner James Finch has struggled for 16 years to get a chance to compete at NASCAR's Cup level full-time, running as a single-car team with a limited budget from sponsor Miccosukee Indian & Gaming. Finch has come close a few times -- third in the 2002 Daytona 500 with Geoffrey Bodine -- but a win was thought to be near impossible. It's the first victory by a team and driver not planning to run a full schedule together since Davey Allison won twice in 1987.

As for the argument about Keselowski's last lap pass, the yellow-line rule can be debated 'till the cows come home. But one thing you can't argue about -- putting all the safety issues aside -- is the pure enthusiasm this 25-year-old brings to the sport. "Pinch me," he said after pulling one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history. "I don't know, am I awake? How about this team? How about all them fans out there, man thanks for coming. This is the best show on earth. This is NASCAR racing and this is cool." It's been a long time since we last heard NASCAR and 'cool' in the same sentence from anyone -- so let's hope this weekend was the day the sport finally turned the corner on its dismal 2009 season.

Do you have a nominee for Underdog of the Week? Email with your driver and the reasons why he should be featured. If you're lucky, we'll include your fan comments in this very space next week!

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